Now is the perfect time to unleash the full potential of flexible working
This week’s Queen’s Speech is the optimum moment for the UK Government to make good on its commitments to flexible working and Carers’ Leave.
Our Chief Executive, Carole Easton, outlines how a new Employment Bill granting workers increased flexibility could help reverse worrying trends in the labour market caused by the pandemic.
A lot has changed in the world of work since the UK first announced the prospect of a new Employment Bill in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic created seismic changes in the way we work and has changed how many people see their future in work. For many that future means more flexibility and so the UK needs a new Employment Bill more than ever.
At the Centre for Ageing Better, we urge the Prime Minister to deliver on promises made three years ago to extend flexible working and Carers’ Leave. We want to see a Queen’s Speech that grants the right for people to request flexible working to be in place from day one of employment. We would also like to see employees given a new right to five days Carers’ Leave each year.
Making this legislation a reality and not just a promise will make a huge difference to the lives of many, both in work and currently out-of-work. In particular it will have a profound impact on the ability of people to work for longer, in line with the Government’s ambition to increase State Pension Age. The need for such changes has become more critical since the bill was first proposed.
As detailed in our recently-published The State of Ageing 2022 report, the number of people aged 50 to 64 who are neither working nor looking for work has risen by 228,000 since the start of the pandemic, and the employment rate in this group has fallen by 1.8 percentage points. What the UK has experienced over the past two years has been an exodus of older workers from the labour market – not into unemployment, but into ‘inactivity’ (mostly retirement), which means they have chosen to remove themselves from the workforce entirely.
This, coupled with significant skills shortages and vacancies in many industries currently, means our economy needs older workers more than ever. The Government needs to be doing everything it can to help attract these workers back into the workplace and that response needs to be immediate. Before the pandemic, employment rates among over 50s had been rising for more than twenty years. But the disruption of the pandemic stalled this progress and it now needs a kick-start from legislation to set the trend heading back in the right direction.
Flexible working and Carers’ Leave will help employers to find the right people to benefit their organisation and fill in skills shortages they may be currently experiencing.
The benefits of flexible working
Flexible working is the number one incentive older workers cite that would help them to remain in work, helping them to manage caring responsibilities and their own long-term health conditions. Older workers are seeking more flexibility but it may take wholesale change across sectors driven by Government for the majority to reap the benefits. Pre-pandemic, almost three quarters of UK employees aged 55 or over reported in a survey that they either already worked flexibly or wanted to. But a third of over 50s didn’t realise they had the right to request flexible working, and a quarter said they wouldn’t be comfortable asking.
And despite flexible working often being considered a standard part of employment terms, these benefits are rarely highlighted by recruiters, with flexible working appearing in just 5.5% of job adverts.
Employers can also see the benefits of flexible working. Offering flexible working at recruitment stage was identified by some employers, interviewed as part of our Good Recruitment for Older Workers research, as a way of attracting candidates and increasing the diversity of applicants. Flexible working and Carers’ Leave will help employers to find the right people to benefit their organisation and fill in skills shortages they maybe currently experiencing.
What needs to happen
The Government has made explicit commitments to deliver on these issues in the past.
In the 2019 Conservative Manifesto the Government committed to consult on flexible working: “Encouraging flexible working and consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to.” The Manifesto also committed to introduce Carers’ Leave: “We will also extend the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women, to one week”.
In 2019 the Queen’s Speech announced an Employment Bill would enhance workers’ rights, support flexible working and extend unpaid carers’ entitlement to leave. Following a consultation, the Government announced it would introduce Carers’ Leave when there was a legislative opportunity. Legislative opportunities have come and gone since then and the need for these improvements in workers’ rights has grown and grown.
Now is the time for the Prime Minister to make good on those promises.